Real austerity brings inclusivity, inspiration and invention

CULTURE SHOCK: The Cultúrlann in Derry has been shortlisted for the architectural Oscars, the Stirling Prize

CULTURE SHOCK:The Cultúrlann in Derry has been shortlisted for the architectural Oscars, the Stirling Prize. With its modest design, it shows good aesthetics make for good politics

MODESTY AND restraint are not the virtues one associates with Irish culture in the Celtic Tiger years. But one of the finest pieces of contemporary Irish design is brilliant in part because it is contained, understated, and so supremely self-confident that it doesn’t have to shout. John Tuomey and Sheila O’Donnell’s Cultúrlann building in Derry is on the shortlist for the architectural Oscars, the Stirling Prize. I was in it for the first time last weekend and it deserves all the praise and prizes it can get. Apart from its own merits, it points towards a kind of genuine austerity aesthetic, a way for Irish art to be modest and serious without being dull and impoverished.

The Cultúrlann is the baby of the Stirling shortlist, up against far more opulent projects. Most of the other buildings cost vast amounts of money. The former British Telecoms building in London was refurbished at a cost of £72 million. The refit of the Royal Shakespeare theatre in Stratford cost £60 million. The admittedly stunning Olympic Velodrome in London, which is widely tipped to win, cost around £93 million.

The Cultúrlann cost just £4 million. But it is a wonderful contemporary validation of Mies van der Rohe’s architectural dictum that less is more.

What seems to me to give the building its power is that it emerges, not out of the sense of amplitude that characterised pre-crash Ireland, but out of scarcity – of money and space. It’s interesting, indeed, that the Cultúrlann shares with another brilliant public cultural building of the last few years, the new opera house in Wexford, the condition of being a solution to a very difficult problem. The Wexford theatre had to be inserted into a limited site on a mediaeval street, without bullying the neighbouring buildings.

The Cultúrlann was an even more constrained project, built on Great James Street in the old walled city. It had to fit into the site of a burnt-out bakery, on a street of Victorian and Georgian terraced houses. To make matters worse, an electricity substation occupies a third of the site’s street frontage and had to be incorporated in the façade. And there is only one entrance to the site – there’s no view from the back of the building.

In fact, you could easily walk by the building without taking a second look. The outside is wedged between existing buildings, respects the height of the street and is conspicuously inconspicuous. If you do stop and look, you’ll notice the clever way the façade is actually arranged to look smaller than it is, folding in and out, almost like corrugated cardboard. The grey concrete exterior is broken by angular arrangements of yellow-framed windows, so that no one thing presents itself to the eye with any great force. There’s nothing imposing about the way the building sits on the street.

The genius of the design, though, is that O’Donnell and Twomey compensated for this modesty with a lovely paradox – placing the facades on the inside.

You go in to what feels an outside space: O’Donnell and Tuomey describe it as “an outside room”, and that’s the way you experience it. The Stirling judges compare the vortex-like atrium to a “twisting mediaeval lane in an old city”. For once, this isn’t poncy architect-speak. The interior really does feel like a street. With the natural light streaming down from the big, sloping glass roof, the space has the feel of a dreamy little enclave of an idealised city. It’s not just because there’s a shop, a cafe and a bar. It’s the way they’re arranged in a space that manages to seem at once geometric and haphazard.

But there’s nothing mediaeval about the design itself. Giving the role of the Cultúrlann as a centre for the Irish language and music, it would have been tempting to create an archaic, self-consciously “traditional” space, using some imagined vernacular style. Instead, O’Donnell and Tuomey have gone for something that it relentlessly contemporary. It might even be an industrial building. The walls are concrete, softened by being marked with boards. The floor is grey terrazzo. There’s a dreamy blue wall at the end of the atrium but the dominant colours are the yellow of the window frames that’s the colour of industrial cranes and the red steel, used for the stairs, that reminds you of gantries.

But this toughness is never brutal. The four levels of the building are twisted playfully around the trapezoidal central space, so that you see stairs, bridges and platforms moving mysteriously at different angles, upwards towards the light. You’re invited to look up, making the building feel much bigger than it is. But you’re also invited to go up – the space asks to be explored.

This emphasises the nature of the building as a community centre. It is beautiful, highly formed and sculptural, but it is not intimidating. On the contrary, everything about it tries to draw people in. And in this sense, the good aesthetics also make for good politics. The Cultúrlann is the first publically-funded Irish-language centre in the UK. It is part of a city that has been notoriously divided – physically and psychologically. The minimalism of the design and the open nature of the space – its feeling of being as public as a street and therefore common property – are not just matters of style. They convey neutrality and inclusivity.

But there’s another kind of political statement here too. This is a great public building that is entirely without pomposity or grandiloquence. It has a genuine austerity, not just in the way it uses cheap materials like plywood and painted plaster in many of its rooms, but in the way it makes the most of every resource of space and light that’s available to it. This kind of austerity isn’t grim, slash-and-burn negativity. It’s the creativity of turning constraints into inspirations and limitations into inventions.